As we emerge tentatively from the worst of the global economic crisis, businesses are once again looking to the future. Even if short-term performance is a little more predictable, however, the medium- to long-term future is still uncertain and substantial questions for strategy remain. How are consumer values changing? Where will the key opportunities for growth come from? How do we ensure that our brand positioning and innovation pipeline are rooted in needs that will still resonate tomorrow?
Answering these questions requires a shift in mindset and approach from short-term certainties to future possibilities, a shift that doesn't always sit comfortably with the more empirical mindset of the traditional market researcher, or with the conventional methodologies in the market research toolbox.
The adage that 'consumers cannot tell you what they don't yet know' still holds true, so the answer rarely lies in exclusively conducting more research. Instead it requires a broader, deeper and more creative approach that is built on a strong foundation of futures insight.
At The Futures Company, we talk about the need to 'unlock' futures, often using the analogy of cracking a safe, which requires looking at the problem from a range of different perspectives to be sure of finding the right combination. Of course, the more experience you have of attempting it, the more likely you are to hit upon the correct combination.
Today's world holds many clues about what the future will hold. As the science fiction writer William Gibson has said: 'The future is already here; it is just unevenly distributed.' Piecing together those clues is the first step. So, we start by understanding both what is happening today and how it is changing. By monitoring the macro forces affecting consumer values and attitudes around the world and observing consumer and brand behaviour on the ground, we identify emerging consumer trends that explain the world we live in today and the probable shape of the world we will live in tomorrow.
If there is one thing we can predict about the future, it is that it will be increasingly complex, particularly for marketers.
The purpose of insight and foresight is to reduce complexity, not add to it. The key to unlocking the future is therefore the ability to crystallise it in such a way that businesses can grasp it, share it and work with it to create their own futures.
This usually means avoiding the distraction of fads to focus on the more fundamental forces shaping consumers' lives and influencing their priorities and preferences in your category.
At The Futures Company we have created a straightforward framework of 10 'Global Energies' to do this. Whereas fads come and go within weeks or months, our Global Energies have a shelf life of years. They are the 'why' behind the 'what', focusing on the most meaningful changes shaping the future consumer landscape.
Aside from its complexity, the inherent uncertainty of the future is the other great challenge for marketers and researchers who are more comfortable in the here and now.
Yet there are no future facts, so the emphasis needs to be on building organisational confidence about the future by collectively exploring the possibilities, identifying the probabilities, then planning and rehearsing a strategy that is resilient enough to accommodate uncertainty.
Businesses must also recognise that they are not just passive participants in their future; they have the ability to shape that future - the future of consumer needs and desires, of the markets and categories they operate in, their brands and companies.
As businesses look ahead once more, the opportunity for those in the research and insight community is to unlock more effectively that future for organisations.
Developing trends programmes and horizon-scanning processes, using scenario-planning techniques to explore potential developments in categories and the future-proofing of portfolio and brand strategies are all important tools for any organisation looking to realise its future potential.
Will Galgey is global chief executive of The Futures Company. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org